Funding and Choices: Charter schools change the education game


Analysis by Amanda Clark, The Maine Heritage Policy Center

Between school consolidation and decreased funding, Maine’s educational system has been in a state of flux for the past few years. The passage in June of LD 1553, An Act To Create a Public Charter School Program in Maine, guarantees that things will remain interesting.

Within the next 10 years, LD 1553 allows for the formation of up to ten charter schools approved by the State Charter School Commission and the establishment of an unlimited number of charter schools approved by local school boards. With the formation of charter schools comes the opportunity for parents to retain accountability in their children’s education, the hope for restoration of Maine’s rural schools and a system of student-centered innovation.

Charter schools have detractors, particularly those who feel that they will be harmful to the public school system. However, the newly established charter schools will be operated as public schools and will report to a governing school board.

There are five characteristics which, together, distinguish charters schools from any other type of school. They must be non-sectarian, have completely open enrollment, be tuition-free, have an independent governing school board, and operate under the foundation of a prevailing charter. Neither magnet schools, such as the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, nor alternative schools fit these criteria.

Magnet schools differ from charter schools in that they have academic admission requirements and are managed by the local public school system instead of an independent governing board. Because they target higher performing students, magnet schools can deny admission to underperforming students who would otherwise flourish in a rigorous academic environment.

Alternative schools are also run by existing school boards and administrators and have controlled enrollment. In addition, traditional public school students must have permission from their district to attend an alternative school in another district. The choice to attend a charter school does not require permission from anyone but the parents of the student.

The question in the minds of many is who or what will fund charter schools. Charter schools are not permitted to increase the burden on taxpayers or push traditional public schools deeper in the hole. Furthermore, charter schools cannot levy taxes or issue bonds. They must carry their own the burden.

The money allocated to a student from his or her residing school district (determined across the state by Essential Programs and Services) goes with the student to the selected charter school. This includes district-allocated funds for both education and transportation. The same model follows in the case of special education students and those who are eligible for federal funds. To compensate for any administrative expenses, the student’s residing district is permitted to keep up to one percent of the allocated funds.

Because of the strict allocation agreement, charter schools cannot spend more taxpayer money per pupil than the EPS authorizes. This is contrary to the case in most Maine public schools. Portland, for instance, spent almost $10.5 million, or 14 percent, more than the figure dictated by the EPS for the 2009-10 budget.

To fill any funding shortfalls, charter schools may accept private donations and grants, as well as federal grants for which traditional public schools are not eligible. These funds would go toward things like facilities, property and special programs which, unlike in the case of traditional public schools, are not subsidized.

Finally, to protect traditional public schools and to prevent a mass exodus from any one school administrative unit to one particular charter school during its first two years, LD 1553 limits the number of transferring students from each grade level to 10 percent.

No school can be a success without the enthusiastic support of its faculty. While the focus of charter schools is most definitely the student, LD 1553 contains many provisions that benefit teachers. Transferring teachers who have participated in the Maine Public Employees Retirement System may retain their accrued benefits and continue to participate in the program. A charter school board may choose to coordinate with the MPERS for the benefit of new teachers and employees, as well. And just like traditional public school teachers, charter school teachers may unionize and bargain collectively.

Because of the anticipated smaller size of charter schools and the often atypical groupings of students, charter teachers will have the chance to work with students in a unique, individualized manner. With the approval of the governing board and charter, teachers may choose to include special education students in the main classroom, utilize different teaching methods such as Montessori or incorporate an expanded curriculum.

Because applicants for charter school teaching positions are not required to hold a teaching certificate (they must acquire certification within three years of their hire date), individuals with advanced degrees or specialized knowledge can bring their talents to the classroom. In fact, studies show no empirical evidence linking teacher certification to better student outcomes.

One of the most controversial aspects of Maine’s school consolidation is the closing of local, especially rural, public schools. Consolidation has compelled parents and students wishing to participate in a traditional public school to attend the school with which their town has joined or consolidated. Rural schools now have the opportunity to maintain their independence and be restored to continue to serve their community as charter schools.

A rural school which decides to transform into a public charter school will be able to accept federal and private funding which they otherwise would not be been able to accept. The governing board would have flexibility to change the school year, school day, hours of operation, or if they see fit, establish a system of block scheduling. They could also change teaching curriculum and hire teachers from outside the traditional teaching arena.

LD 1553 offers teachers and parents the choice of converting their traditional public school to a charter school. The change requires two petitions, one signed by the majority of teachers at the school and one signed by the majority of parents whose children attend the school. In the case where the traditional public school is the only school within the administrative unit, then the conversion is also determined by the voters.

Charter schools have the freedom to be creative and therefore implement programs and methods best suited for their individual students. Grade levels can be skill-based instead of age-based. Parent involvement can be required. Charter schools may also provide students with ideas and skills from outside their classroom, such as community service, immersion in foreign languages other than French and Spanish, and even virtual learning. In fact, the state of Maine allows for the establishment of an entirely online charter school. This, of course, would require a significant amount of monitoring by teachers and parents, but could be a solution for children of parents with transient jobs or children who physically cannot go to school.

The passage of charter school legislation paves the way for students to believe the sky is the limit. As our world becomes more inter-globally connected, our children must be equipped with the resources and knowledge to exchange and operate cross-culturally and with a higher degree of technological awareness. At the same time, even within our own state, our student populations and their unique needs are growing more diverse. Charter schools offer a feasible way for teachers, parents and students to unite in the furtherance of advanced and truly comprehensive education.